Students Use Twitter to Report on Disabled-Parking Spots

The article in the University of Minnesota’s Statesman student newspaper was a pretty classic piece of journalism. Print journalism, that is. Our classroom experiment was to see if we could take it further using Twitter.

The original article involved a University of Minnesota Duluth student who said she had a hard time making it to class on time because she could not find disabled-parking spaces on campus. She finally had enough and turned to the campus newspaper to share her story.

The article, written by reporter Eric Ludy, was complete, fair and well-written. But Ludy reached a dead end in his reporting: University officials said the campus is up to code in the number of disabled spaces it has available.

Spacer Spacer

I asked the students in the editing class I teach to take the story to another level. Armed with our laptop computers and our newfound — and limited — knowledge of Twitter, we spread out across the campus looking to document this issue.

We printed out the campus parking map and assigned teams to go to every disabled parking spot on campus.

At 10 a.m. on a Thursday morning, amid the hustle and bustle on campus, we wanted to know:

  • How many of the disabled-parking spaces were vacant?
  • How many of the cars parked in those spaces had decals of some kind?
  • How many of those decals were temporary tags?

A student with a strong knowledge of Twitter taught us the basics. If we all used the same “hashtag,” (ours was #umdparking), then someone could search and find all of our entries.

And off we went.

Within seconds the first entry was posted. Then another. And another. Within 15 minutes, all the student journalists were back at their desks and an inventory of vacant spaces was complete.

Our results found that of the 58 spaces on campus, only seven parking spaces were vacant at the time of our inspection and most of them were located on remote spots on campus. Those spots closer to the main buildings on campus were occupied — many with people using temporary tags.

Now what? We weren’t exactly sure. We’d done the work, but except for the few people “following us” (that’s Twitter talk), the news was like the tree falling in the Twitter forest. No one would hear it.

Some of the next steps were obvious; others took some brainstorming. First, we posted a comment on the original article designed to drive people to our Twitter results. Next, we wrote a short article and sent it to the campus paper in hopes that the paper would run it alongside the original article. We created a Facebook group designed to let people know about this issue.

We also started thinking about the value of letting Twitter do its job by encouraging readers to become the reporters. We sent an e-mail about the project to the student organization that focuses on disabled issues and posted a blog entry about it on one of the more active community forums in Duluth.

As we did, I began to wonder. What had happened here? “Back in the day” such a project would have taken several weeks to evolve. An initial story would have been written and published in the newspaper. Maybe a few readers would have called in to vent about the issue. A dedicated couple might have written a letter to the editor. In some rare instances, the story might inspire someone to visit a public meeting — giving journalists a chance to follow up on the story.

But, in this case, the story had evolved in a matter of 20 minutes. What’s more, the potential was for the story to be handed over to the community and to allow others to keep policing the disabled-parking spots on campus to track this issue over time.

Was this a problem that needed to be addressed? Twitter and the other social media tools helped us find out.

Still, the project was not without its challenges. In the newsroom of yesterday, all the messages and comments would have been edited carefully. We probably would have created a graphic and made sure we could accurately verify the information about the parking lots. What had been missed? What had been miscounted? There was no barrier between the message and publication.

There were also style issues and issues of sensitivity that probably would have been caught. Some students used the term “handicapped,” which a copy editor at a newsroom would have caught as a violation of Associated Press style and, more importantly, a term that can be offensive. (AP style says a person’s handicap/disability should be described as specifically as possible and should only be included if it’s clearly pertinent to the story.) Too late now. The story was out of our hands.

Even if our twittering didn’t prompt university officials to add more disabled-parking spots, I still consider the experiment a success. For me, success was showing students and myself that it didn’t take that much effort to add a layer to this story using Twitter. Together, we learned how to use a tool that really does have an application in storytelling — not just for journalists, but for news consumers, too.

John Hatcher is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

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